Why Writers Need to Read

Basketball players, football players, baseball players all watch footage of the greats in their field in action. They’re not just looking for entertainment; they’re studying—learning to intuit the footwork, uncovering the strategy behind each decision. No matter how much instinctive talent they’re blessed with, they still have homework.

If this metaphor doesn’t do it for you because you’re part of the 99.9% of writers who don’t care for (understand?) sports, let me try quoting Steven King:

“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

(I misremembered this quote as “If you don’t read, you have no business writing,” so let’s just attribute that one to me.) King’s point is twofold: First, many would-be writers profess they have “no time” to read, but this is a problem of self-discipline. If you have time to write, you have time to read; moreover, the act of reading is part of the act of writing. Second, and more importantly, reading supplies you with the tools you need to build your writing. It teaches you how to even pick them up.

How can you possibly write a book if you don’t know what one looks like? I don’t mean the size and color of the cover. I mean the variations of prose, the ambition of form, the traditions of content—all the tricks of the trade. How can someone who wants to write learn how to wield exacting description, realistic dialogue, subtle metaphor—much less basic grammar—if they haven’t studied it, carefully, in action? And how can they get a feel for the history of the canon, the infinite possibilities of bending genre, the popularity of current content, without having a foundation of read works to stand on? Knowing that Game of Thrones is a wildly popular TV show does not equate understanding how George R. R. Martin created memorable characters and surprising plot twists. And writing a short story today without having witnessed the remarkable transformation the form has undergone over the last century would rob your work of a certain richness.

Finally, reading inspires. The desire to write should be a desire to join the ranks of the writers who have gone before you, and the desire to earn the right to shelve your work alongside theirs. “Write what you want to read” maxims aside, if you’re only writing for yourself, it belongs in a diary.

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